The Sunday Magazine

How the 'state of self-pity' that is Brexit stemmed from Britain's victory in WW II

Britain won the most consequential war in human history, but can't seem to extricate itself from the European Union. Fintan O'Toole, an Irish political commentator and the author of Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain, unpacks why that is.
Union and EU fags flutter outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London, on March 28, as the Brexit battle wages on. (Niklas Halle'nAFP/Getty Images)

An Irish political commentator who has been watching the Brexit debacle with dismay says Britain's current "state of self-pity" stems from its victories in the First and Second World War.

Fintan O'Toole, a literary and drama critic for the Irish Times and a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, unpacks the idea in his latest book, Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain.

O'Toole is also a visiting lecturer in Irish Letters at Princeton University and the author of more than 20 books.

He spoke with The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright about his latest work, and what Britain's past tells us about Brexit.

Here is part of their conversation. 

Michael Enright: You've written that, in fact, England has never gotten over the fact that they won the war.

Fintan O'Toole: I started thinking about England in the way that maybe only a kind of close neighbour but also an outsider can think about it, you know, that this big question, really is: How does a very prosperous, relatively stable, privileged western European country decide that it is intolerably oppressed, merely by the fact that it's part of a normal, consensual relationship with 27 other European countries?

And I think this does go back to the Second World War. [England] experienced something that nobody else in history has ever experienced, which is you win a really major war — arguably the major war. Yet, within 10 years, they're looking at the very powers they defeated, the three big Axis powers — Germany, Italy and Japan — and they've all passed out Britain economically by the mid-1950s.

The sense that we didn't get what we deserved out of winning the Second World War ... they've never really, fully reconciled themselves with the fact that actually, it's quite OK just to be a normal western European, democratic country.

Do you think that the 2016 referendum divided the country, or did it just lay bare the divisions that were already there?

I think it did both. So there's no doubt about the fact that the referendum itself has exacerbated division, and it's become the major split in British politics. But I think it also has laid bare divisions that were already there.

The underlying glue that holds this thing together has been pulling apart, really, since the turn of the century. [In] 1998 you have the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland, which kind of says Northern Ireland can leave the union whenever it wants. And the following year you have the establishment of the Scottish parliament which takes on more and more kind of power, but also it was a real symbol of national identity. And the English start saying: "What about us?"

Anti-Brexit protester Steve Bray, left, and a pro-Brexit protester argue as they demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in London, on Jan. 8. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

The whole Brexit vote and the subsequent negotiations — what's the damage to the viability of Britain's political institutions, and to the unity of the U.K.?

I think the damage is very profound and very long-term. I think it's generational. I think Britain's reputation on the world stage is deeply damaged. I think its economic future is badly damaged. But I also think the union, the union itself, this construct of England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, it's very hard to see that it's going to exist in 15 or 20 years time.

[Your] latest book is Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain. Pain for whom, and inflicted by whom?

This [Brexit] is a huge act of self-harm. You know, we know that distressed people harm themselves, and they harm themselves in order maybe to draw attention to their distress, and there's certainly a big element of that … But the people who are inflicting the pain are the ones who are really not going to feel it.

I don't want to make invidious comparisons, but [there are] the parallels with the United States of people who seemingly, knowingly vote against their own economic interests.

[There's] this idea that Brexit is going to hurt the establishment, and they despise the establishment, and therefore they're willing to take a lot of pain. Brexit's kind of like somebody painting a big target on a brick wall and saying "Kick here." And it's very satisfying to kick out, but you break your own foot.

And I think the parallel that you drew Michael, with Trump, is very accurate. Psychologically, I think there's a lot of the same kind of stuff going on.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.


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